Mobile food, as you already know if you keep up with the foodie press, is the culinary trend from coast to coast these days. Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels by Heather Shouse (Ten Speed Press, $20) forms a tempting menu testifying to why that's the case. In the book, the United States is divided into five geographic regions: West Coast and Pacific, Pacific Northwest, Midwest, South, and East Coast. (It's odd to realize how jarring it is that the book goes from west to east.) Those regions are further broken down into mobile food hot spots. Some cities are obvious -- Los Angeles, New York City; some surprising -- Kansas City, Missouri, for instance.
One of the fascinating parts of Shouse's survey is how far mobile food culture is from being a monoculture either culinarily or aesthetically -- or even regulatorily. Different cities set up their street food vending rules in different ways, most of them quite distinct from how food carts operate here in Madison. In most areas, exact placement of the carts is not overseen by the city, and many times the cooking is done on site, in the mobile truck.
Speaking of Madison, yes, we are in the book, although oddly, only as a map of the Library Mall food serving area with one- or two-line descriptions of the carts. Other cities get maps too, but also feature up-close-and-personal interviews with food vendors. There is some indication that this omission will be rectified in forthcoming editions of the book. Elsewhere, Shouse has spoken about Madison's unique cart culture.
The Library Mall map itself is somewhat imaginary, based on cart applications from last fall rather than reflecting what the layout of carts will look like after the 2011 Madison cart season is in full swing. And cart placement is always in flux anyway. But enough about us.
Other cities like Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, have mobile food lots, usually unused parking lots or actual empty lots, that become open air food courts filled with carts or trucks, picnic tables for sitting down and actually dining. Often a neighboring bricks-and-mortar watering hole makes it possible for diners to accompany their enchiladas with a beer. This seems like a great idea. Empty lot with a tavern nearby... hmm, where ever could we find one of those (cough, Union Corners, cough)?
While Food Trucks is a guidebook to some of the most enticing purveyors (it may well send the truck-curious running to Travelocity to see what round-trip fares to Austin are running these days), it is also a cookbook. Recipes for famous favorites like the kimchi quesadilla (from Kogi, in L.A.) and the arepas de queso from the Arepa Lady (Queens, N.Y.) are shared. Up-and-comers like Josh's Smooth & Smoky Mac & Cheese (from Fresh Local of Portsmouth, New Hampshire) are also included.
Since these are foods that are made for the most part in the food trucks, or in commercial kitchens and then ported to food carts, they rely on simple, good ingredients and not a lot of fancy techniques. My favorite so far has been Karel's Chicken Paprikash, a homey stew and dumplings from the old country, via Portland. Other foods, like the insanely inventive doughnuts served at Gourdough's in Austin, seem less for the home cook than for some intrepid entrepreneur in an Airstream with a deep fryer.